Opinion

Not all women benefit from WFH

Pushpa Sundar | Updated on March 07, 2021

Due to the nature of their work, WFH is not possible for Anganwadi and ASHA workers   -  Vijaya Bhaskar Ch

Women in the unorganised sector cannot work from home. Also stepping outside the home is crucial for empowerment

Though the actual numbers vary depending on the source, there is very little doubt that not only has women’ employment fallen during the pandemic but that the quality of that employment has declined.

Even before the pandemic, women’s participation in the workforce has always been low compared to the men’s, only 9 per cent of all women of working age being employed compared to 67 per cent of men of working age (source: CMIE). Now, the pandemic has hit women harder than men. Though only 11 per cent of the workforce in 2019-20, they suffered 13 per cent of the job losses in April 2020.

It is not only the absolute numbers which indicate the distress faced by them but the fact that they lost more of the top end jobs in the organised sector, and had to make up by taking jobs in the informal and gig economy.

Urban, educated women’s employment declined more than that of rural women who continued to find work in the fields and on MGNREGA. But there too women’ s participation has decreased, not only due to Covid-19, but other economic and social factors.

The long-term fall in poverty, especially rural poverty, has meant that many families prefer to keep the women at home both as a status symbol of their new prosperity, and to improve their marriage prospects, as well as for reasons of safety. Particularly in the northern belt, women’s safety is a matter of concern to families and there are fears of molestation if girls go to school or to work.

Though the job market has recovered somewhat in January 2021 with women’s employment increasing by 11.9 million, the new employment is mostly in the lower end construction and agriculture sectors. Women’s employment in the better paid manufacturing and service industries has not recovered to previous levels, according to CMIE figures.

An urban version of the MGNREGA which could have provided jobs for low income women was not included in the Budget, much to one’s disappointment.

More distressing is the fact that we have not been able to translate the boom in college and school going girls, especially in urban areas, into a demographic dividend for the economy.

Spark of hope?

However, some observers see in the current trend of working from home (WFH) necessitated by the pandemic, a spark of hope for women’s employment. The end of the pandemic may still see a mix of WFH and regular working due to the saving of costs on office space, commuting costs, costs of meeting and so on that WFH offers.

Employees too may welcome it for the same reasons of economy. These analysts argue that this trend is likely to increase women’s participation because it can allow more women to combine their domestic duties with office work more seamlessly, as well as overcome the cultural concerns of women’s safety at the workplace and en route.

While there may be some merit in this argument , this is not the best way to empower women. In any case it applies only to urban women in the organised sector. Neither agricultural work where women are employed to work in the fields, nor MGNREGA work can be done from home, nor the work of Anganwadi or ASHA workers whose main responsibility is interaction with their charges. Nor will it affect women employed in the unorganised sector, working from home on craft production, handlooms, or selling vegetables etc. and the like.

Besides, even before the lockdown, companies were outsourcing parts of the production to women who worked from home.

For instance Titan was outsourcing the production of watch parts, such as straps or dials to women or women’s groups. Though such WFH or outsourcing may enable women to increase their income it will not empower them.

Outsourced work can be exploitative since women cannot unionise or even resort to collective action. Exploitation apart, women need to leave the confines of their home and meet other work related people for their own mental and physical well being.

Being confined to the home and juggling domestic chores and paid work throughout the day is neither stimulating nor empowering for women; it only imposes a double burden without any of the benefits of being able to go out to work and meet other peer groups.

Group activity is key

Women need to get out of the house for part of the day at least and participate in group activity, be it in an office setting or some production centre. Even professional women need to get out of their home. Men’s careers are advanced through the networks they form during their work.

Women must similarly have opportunities to gain information or expertise through contacts with other women and men.

While professional women at the higher end may be able to periodically go to their workplaces or keep in touch with colleagues through zoom meetings, it is not the case for lower end workers. For them, a model such as the Lijjat Papad cooperative is better. There, the women come together at a central place to collect raw materials and deliver the finished product. The actual production is done at home.

This has the advantage of enabling them to get out of their homes for some of the time, leaving their domestic duties behind, to exchange news and information from other colleagues and also to discuss conditions of employment. It is a model which also allows for introduction of PPF, health checks, or group insurance benefits.

To conclude while WFH may certainly increase women’s participation in the organised urban labour force, especially in the case of pregnant women or those who have to drop out of regular work due to maternity etc, it will not help all women. Nor will it be the most empowering solution for women.

The writer is the author of several books and articles on philanthropy, CSR and civil society.

Published on March 07, 2021

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